RIO DE JANEIRO—With her 21st birthday fast approaching, Sara left the home she shares with her mother for her first trip on a plane. She didn’t tell her family the real reason she’d taken out a loan for 5,000 Brazilian reais ($1,000).
Two days later and several hundred miles away, a 25-year-old woman packed a backpack in her one-bedroom Sao Paulo apartment and left for the airport with her boyfriend.
Both women were bound for the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, seeking something forbidden in Brazil: an abortion.
“Having a child that I don’t want, and have no conditions to raise, and being obliged, would be torture,” Sara told The Associated Press in Sao Paulo’s airport as she prepared to sleep on a bench near the check-in counter the night before her connecting flight.
“What has helped me since I discovered I was pregnant is that I have a chance. I still have an alternative. That leaves me feeling more secure,” said the woman, who lives in the interior Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte and asked that only her first name be used because of the stigma associated with abortion in Brazil.
Both women are part of a trend among Brazilian women without means who, to dodge risks and legal obstacles in Latin America’s most populous country, have sought abortions elsewhere in the region. They didn’t even need passports to enter Argentina, a fellow Mercosur nation.
Their trips came just two weeks before the Dec. 30 passage of landmark legislation legalizing abortion in Argentina — the largest Latin American nation to do so. It underscores not only how Argentina’s progressive social policy diverges from Brazil’s conservative one, but also the likelihood that more Brazilian women will seek abortions in the neighboring nation.
“With the changes in legislation in Latin America, women don’t need to go to the U.S., don’t need a visa to get an abortion,” said Debora Diniz, a Latin American studies researcher at Brown University who has extensively studied abortion in the region.
“More middle- and working-class women connected to feminist groups are now having access to something that is basically the story of wealthy women for a long time.”
Sara said she couldn’t risk the possibility of buying counterfeit abortion pills or undergoing a dangerous backdoor procedure in Brazil. She feared injury, death or a failed abortion resulting in complications. Getting caught could even mean jail.
An Argentine health ministry protocol provided legal leeway for Sara’s Dec. 14 abortion as long as she signed a statement citing the “health risk” the pregnancy posed. The policy was based on the World Health Organization’s definition of health: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Still, some doctors refused abortions anyway, according to Dr. Viviana Mazur, who leads the sexual health group of the Argentine Federation of General Medicine. The new law allows abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy.
“The law will give more autonomy and dignity to women,” Dr. Mazur said. “So they don’t have to say ‘please,’ ask permission, nor forgiveness.”
Before last week’s vote, Argentine feminist groups had long pushed for legalized abortion in the homeland of Pope Francis, and they found common cause with President Alberto Fernández, who was elected in 2019 and introduced the bill.
Activists demonstrated in front of Congress for weeks. Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who presided over the debate in a legislature where more than 40% of lawmakers are women, announced the passage of the law. A crowd of several thousand outside burst into cheers and tearful hugs.
There hasn’t been any echo in Brazil’s Congress, where about 15% of lawmakers are women.
Brazilian law has remained virtually unchanged since 1940, permitting abortions only in cases of rape and danger to the woman’s life. A Supreme Court ruling in 2012 also allowed abortions when the fetus has anencephaly. Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, lawmakers have introduced at least 30 bills seeking to tighten laws, according to watchdog Women in Congress.
Backed by conservatives and evangelicals, Bolsonaro has said that if Congress legalized abortion, he would veto. After Argentina’s bill was passed, Bolsonaro said on Twitter that it would leave children “subject to being reaped in their mother’s wombs with consent of the State.”
He named evangelical pastor Damares Alves, who has said she opposes abortion even in cases of rape, to be his minister of women, families and human rights. After a 10-year-old was raped by her uncle and religious protesters besieged the hospital where her abortion was performed in August, Alves said the fetus should have been delivered by cesarean section.
“We are working to provide a growing level of attention and protection to our pregnant women in vulnerable situations,” Alves said in a written response to AP questions. “No one will want to leave the Brazil that we are building, much less to kill their kids.”
Diniz, the Brown University researcher, conducted a 2016 survey in Brazil that found one in five respondents had an abortion by age 40. The survey of 2,002 Brazilian women found higher rates of abortion among those with less education and income.
In 2018, a health ministry official said the government estimated some 1 million induced abortions annually, with unsafe procedures causing more than 250,000 hospitalizations and 200 deaths.
“Abortion is a common experience in a woman’s life. But at the same time, it is a sensitive political issue, and made sensitive by men in power,” Diniz said.
The Sao Paulo woman who traveled to Argentina for an abortion last month grew up in a Rio de Janeiro slum, or favela, where she frequently saw unplanned pregnancies derail women’s lives, burdening them with responsibilities and making it even harder to have careers or social mobility.
“It’s hard to get out of that reality,” she said.
She was able to leave the favela after landing a secure job, and is studying for a career in a medical field. In doing so, she became “the pride of my parents,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used because she feared professional consequences and because abortion is illegal in Brazil.
Raised in a devout evangelical family, the woman said having an abortion in Brazil meant running afoul of both her God and national law. Of the two, she believed God could forgive her, so she looked abroad.
That way, she said, “no one will be able to accuse me of committing a crime.”
Both women turned for help to the Brazilian non-profit Miles for Women’s Lives, founded by screenwriter Juliana Reis and Rebeca Mendes, who became a pioneer in 2017 when she publicly announced she would travel outside Brazil for an abortion. The group helped the first woman travel abroad in November 2019, and another 59 had followed by the end of last year. The total includes 16 women who went to Argentina in November and December.
It raises about 4,000 reais ($750) monthly from crowdfunding and pays travel costs for about one-fifth of the women, Reis said. Efforts are focused on providing moral support and helping women navigate the unfamiliar countries and connect with clinics abroad.
The group has received some 1,500 requests for assistance, whether within Brazil or abroad. Some asked about neighboring Uruguay without knowing its law applies only to residents, Reis said. The only other places in Latin America where abortion is legal are Cuba, Guyana, French Guiana and parts of Mexico.
Now that Argentina has approved legalization, the group expects to provide more Brazilian women with an affordable, safe and legal option at their doorstep. Reis said the group has 13 women heading to Argentina in January, and she expects travel there will become more commonplace, particularly from southern Brazil.
“Our operations have reached an intense level because many people believe it is no longer tolerable to keep hiding this in the closet and figuring out workarounds,” Reis said. “For me, this is the start of a change.”
After her abortion, Sara said in Buenos Aires she felt relieved, and even contemplated sharing the experience with her family.
“I know women who have needed to do clandestine abortions,” she said. “In Brazil — and everywhere — there are women who need this support.”
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.